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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10241

Mr RANDALL (12:37 PM) —I am pleased to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 today. As we know, this bill seeks to amend the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 to introduce a 50 per cent refundable tax offset for eligible education expenses, which are extremely limited. I will go into those details further in this speech. The proposed offset is for expenses totalling a maximum of $750 per primary school student, meaning a $375 offset, and $1,500 worth of expenses per secondary student for a $750 or 50 per cent offset.

This bill could be a lot better for and a lot more beneficial to Australian families and Australia’s 3.4 million enrolled students. There are over 22,000 students in Canning, made up of 15,215 primary school students and 7,250 secondary school students. It is interesting to note that the government’s description of all eligible items is not at all comprehensive, and this is where this bill falls short. The eligible items are limited to computers, home internet connections, computer software and textbooks associated with computers. It is nowhere near wide enough for the families of today. As we know, it is not good enough for the much generated focus group of the Labor Party, using the slogan ‘working family’, either. Under the bill, eligible families will be those receiving family tax benefit A, those who receive other payments—which means those not receiving family tax benefit A—and those independent students who receive youth allowance, disability support pension or Abstudy living allowance.

This bill emanates from the Labor Party’s election promise which was in this year’s budget. Labor’s education revolution continues to be lacklustre, all spin and no substance. Members might recall seeing the Prime Minister in the lead-up to the election standing there with a computer saying, ‘This is the toolbox of the future.’ A senior journalist from Perth who happened to be there when the Prime Minister, then opposition leader, was saying that said to me he thought it was one of the biggest spin-over stunts that he had seen in any pre-election campaign. The follow-up has not happened. We have got computers, but I will come to the detail of why this is more spin than substance later.

While the coalition support a tax offset for education, those working families that Labor vowed to look after are exactly the people that this bill could have been better for. The coalition strongly support helping parents and caregivers with the cost of education—and we are non-exclusive. All parents—and I emphasise all parents—have a right to choose how best to educate their children. The coalition’s Helping Families to Provide More Educational Opportunities for their Children policy was intended to make the offset of up to $800 for secondary school students and $400 for primary school and preschool students available to all families. The coalition, recognising the breadth of learning and the needs of individual students, included in this policy a broad range of eligible items, again reflecting the choice of parents and the cost of education. The coalition included as eligible items school fees for both government and non-government schools, as well as uniforms, books, stationery, school excursions and camps, laptops and broadband software and extracurricular activities such as music, dance and sport. In other words, the coalition covered all of the expenses, whereas Labor continues on this one-way digital street. It is so narrowly defined. As some have mused, what happens when they all end up with their computers? Does that mean that they cannot claim eligible expenses? Are there no other eligible expenses under this policy that the Labor Party has now proffered?

Canning Vale High School, which was one of the most modern new secondary schools in Western Australia even before this policy came in, has huge banks of computers for students. Not every student is going to be working at a laptop or computer monitor day in, day out the whole time they are at school. To share them is a far better use of such items and is a far better bang for the buck to those paying for them. We are now seeing the Labor Party drift away from the suggestion that everyone will end up with a computer to saying that it could be one between two students. The Labor Party did say before the election that all students would get one, but it has gradually been diluted to one for two. There is more to come.

We do know that education is not cheap, but it is certainly imperative. Many parents struggle to pay fees, pay for books and provide internet access for their children. The coalition recognise that families need help with fees no matter where their children attend school, and that is why it was included in our policy. However, it is not reflected here. Research shows that the basic cost of raising one child to the age of 18 now exceeds $200,000. The Australian Scholarship Group estimates the cost of schooling, depending on the choice of government, independent or private schooling, as follows: the cost of preschool is between $2,662 and $6,952, reflecting parents’ choices; the cost of primary school is between $5,317 and $12,561, again reflecting the range of choices; and the cost of secondary school is between $5,618 and $21,112, again giving a range of choice. As I have mentioned, the cost of schooling is astonishing, and any help is a big help. As we know, many parents either end up with a second job or take out substantial loans to put their children through school.

Without wishing to go into the bona fides of the Prime Minister’s well-documented, old-fashioned, working-class upbringing, I would like to suggest that the Prime Minister consider giving back to those who gave him a leg up when he needed it. As a Queensland youngster Mr Rudd and his brother were fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to attend and board at the elite Catholic boys Marist Brothers school, Marist College Ashgrove. Despite its extensive waiting list, the exclusive school made room for the future Prime Minister and the Marist Brothers themselves covered the fees. Mr Rudd then completed his secondary education at Nambour State High School, coincidentally also the school the Treasurer, the member for Lilley, attended. Mr Rudd has reached the highest office this nation can offer. Without doubt, he is extremely well educated. With Mr Rudd’s family’s highly publicised affluence, he could afford to provide an annual scholarship to both the Marist Brothers college and Nambour high school. He received a fine education from both institutions and should consider giving back to the public and private schools that gave him his start. I am sure that those schools would welcome such an offer and would be delighted with such a showing of gratitude by the Prime Minister now.

Returning to the cost of education, those figures I gave you do not take into account the cost of extracurricular activities. Whether they be ballet classes, junior football or cricket, piano lessons or any other activities, they are a huge additional financial burden on parents—parents of any demographic who want to offer every opportunity to their children. Extracurricular activities are a big cost, and they hit low-income-earning families particularly hard. A Brotherhood of St Laurence survey found that 69 per cent of parents surveyed had trouble paying for sport and other activities. Disturbingly, I must point out, 39 per cent of parents said their children had been absent from school because they could not afford the excursion, the camp or the transport. As a former schoolteacher I remember it was often very heart-rending and embarrassing for the students or their parents when the students were asked, ‘So, why aren’t you going on camp this year?’ and they would say, ‘Oh, Mum doesn’t want me to go,’ or, ‘It’s too cold,’ or, ‘I don’t like that part of the bush.’ You knew it was just an excuse because they could not afford to go, and it was very sad. On many occasions schools out of their own fundraising and on their own initiative paid for many of these students to go on camp. They would lightly sidle up to the parent, quite often a single parent, and say, ‘Look, if you would like, we will find a way to actually get your child to the camp,’ or get them onto the excursion et cetera which was part of their overall education. But it really should not be like that, because the tax offset that we are talking about would actually provide this greater choice for parents to redeem 50 per cent of those fees rather than the narrow focus on computers and computer equipment.

And what about those students who need a little bit of extra help—in tuition, for example? This is not covered under Labor’s offset either. We know that the Labor Party has now scrapped the vouchers that were available for literacy and numeracy et cetera, so parents will struggle. As a parent I know that children do need help in certain areas. If they are weak in maths, for example, it costs a fair bit of money to get in a private tutor to help. No matter how affluent you are, it would still help them if you had the opportunity to get help with some of those extra fees to help your children get through their courses.

This is a government that advocates its early childhood education credentials, yet it is excluding the cost of that education from the offset. Here we have a $4.4 billion initiative that could have been better directed to benefit Australian families. Remember the working families? They are the ones who would not mind benefiting from this as well. So go back to your focus groups and find out if they are happy with this narrow focus on education fees. Everybody agrees that we need to put money in education, but it must be directed in a way that it will do the most good.

The trumpeted ‘education revolution’ has come apart at the seams. With the additional cost of implementing the computers-in-schools program estimated at $3 billion, state Labor governments and the now non-Labor government in Western Australia are finding it pretty tough. For example, in Western Australia, every $1 of federal government funding costs the state an extra $3. It is all right to give schools computers, but where is the connection, where is the backup, where is the ongoing support? What about the repairs and maintenance of these computers? It is not there, and that is why the state governments and many of the state schools at which this initiative is targeted are bailing out: they just cannot afford it.

The way the Labor Party has spruiked its laptops you would think that there were no computers at all in Australian schools. That is just not true. In fact, Australia was one of the world leaders in providing computers, third behind Lichtenstein and the United States, in a 2003 report showing there was one computer for every three students in the country. So that was happening without the Labor Party’s much-vaunted education revolution, which is fizzing out to become less a revolution and more of a disturbance.

Despite having to pay off Labor’s $96 billion debt, the coalition provided record funding for schools. Between 1996 and 2007, investment in state schools doubled from $1.4 billion to $3.5 billion. So much for the criticism about the coalition’s lack of investment: it in fact doubled in that period. Public schools enrol roughly 67 per cent of students yet receive 75 per cent of the funding, whereas non-government schools enrol roughly 33 per cent of students and receive only 25 per cent of funding, and it is the parents and the school communities who make up the shortfall. You hear this sort of thing so often: ‘Look at that school over there; they’ve got all those nice ovals and they’ve got a bus.’ Parents who choose non-government schools for their children—and it is a choice; it should always be a choice, even though the ideologically driven would probably argue against this—make up the difference in funding out of their own pockets. It has been estimated that this difference, in addition to the cost of fees and amenities for students entering non-government schools, is $4 billion per annum.

While we are on the topic of education, let’s not forget those opposite who have axed one of the coalition’s most successful and valuable initiatives: the Investing in Our Schools Program. I defy any member of the government to tell me that not one school in Australia appreciated the funding from the Investing in Our Schools Program. In fact, I would like a dollar for every time the principals, teachers, parents or students came to me and said: ‘Look we could never have afforded that shadecloth over the playground for kids. We could never have afforded the computer hub in our school. We could never have afforded the freezer in the canteen that we had to pay for that we have finally got.’ All of those extra things that the schools could never have afforded to do were provided through the Investing in Our Schools Program and it was axed. So much for investing in schools by the Labor Party. They are so narrowly focused that they are just taking this computer direction and excluding everything else that adds to a child’s education in terms of amenities.

More than 75 Canning schools will feel the pinch with the Labor government scrapping the Investing in Our Schools Program. This funding filled a hole for projects desperately needed by schools that never seemed to make it onto the state government funding priority list, as I said, like adding to the libraries, carpeting and even air conditioning in remote and hot areas. Let us talk about not what they are doing in terms of the education revolution but what they have actually taken away. I conclude by saying we do need to give offsets and support to parents in terms of their school costs but not by just narrowly focusing on computers and the hardware that goes with them. They need to realise that an education is far broader and far more comprehensive than the narrow focus they have chosen on this occasion.